WHO IS ELIOT?
Described as “a writer of faraway mysteries,” Eliot Pattison’s travel and interests span a million miles of global trekking. After visiting every continent but Antarctica, Pattinson stopped logging his miles and set his compass for the unknown. Today he avoids well-trodden paths whenever possible, in favor of wilderness, lesser known historical venues, and encounters with indigenous peoples.
An international lawyer by training, early in his career Pattison began writing on legal and business topics, producing several books and dozens of articles published on three continents. In the late 1990’s he decided to combine his deep concerns for the people of Tibet with his interest in venturing into fiction by writing The Skull Mantra. Winning the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery–and listed as a finalist for best novel for the year in Dublin’s prestigious IMPAC awards–The Skull Mantra launched the Inspector Shan series, which now includes eight novels – both The Skull Mantra and Water Touching Stone were selected by Amazon.com for its annual list of ten best new mysteries. Water Touching Stone was also selected by Booksense as the number one mystery of all time for readers’ groups.
The Inspector Shan series has been translated into over twenty languages around the world. The books have been characterized as creating a new “campaign thriller” genre for the way they weave significant social and political themes into their plots. Indeed, as soon as the novels were released they became popular black market items in China for the way they highlight issues long hidden by Beijing.
In 2015, Eliot Pattison received the prestigious “Art of Freedom” award from the Tibet House along with the likes of radio personality Ira Glass, singer Patti Smith and actor Richard Gere for his human rights advocacy in Tibet.
Pattison’s longtime interest in another “faraway” place, the 18th century American wilderness and its woodland Indians–led to the launch of his Bone Rattler series, which quickly won critical acclaim for its poignant presentation of Scottish outcasts and Indians during the upheaval of the French and Indian War. In Pattison’s words, “this was an extraordinary time that bred the extraordinary people who gave birth to America,” and the lessons offered by the human drama in that long-ago wilderness remain fresh and compelling today.
Eliot Pattison has presented his work at many conferences and high profile venues, such as the Smithsonian, the Tibet House, the International Campaign for Tibet, Gettysburg’s “History Meets the Arts” Festival, and the World Affairs Council.
A former resident of Boston and Washington, he resides on an 18th century farm in Pennsylvania with his wife, three children, and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals.
AUTHOR Q&A: ON THE VITAL ROLE OF HISTORICAL NOVELS
1. As a historical novelist how do you balance fictional elements with the historical record?
Anyone crafting a historical novel has a sober responsibility to stay within the broad confines of the historical record. In all my books I am fastidious about staying true to history, and engage in ongoing research to assure their historical accuracy. This audience looks to be educated, not just entertained. Readers trust the author to teach them about the backdrop for the story, not taking too much license with the facts while doing so. Ultimately the challenge is to seamlessly weave the details of plot and characters into the existing fabric of history.
2. You in fact have stated that historical novels can play as important a role as history texts. Do you mean this in the sense that they supplement our understanding of history?
Good historical novels always supplement our grasp of history. Great historical novels do much more: they reconnect us to our past, energize us about our roots. Our history books have lost their spark. The storytelling is gone from our texts, and from our classrooms. Our histories are sterile, and offer none of the excitement we should feel about our
forebears. We have lost our roots. Well-crafted historical fiction gets us reacquainted with those roots.
3. Are you suggesting that we are ignoring our history?
National testing shows that only twelve percent of our high school seniors score proficient in their knowledge of history. Other surveys demonstrate that for most students their grasp of history steadily declines during their college years. Most of our fellow citizens have lost their sense of history. Popular culture wants us to believe that history is not relevant. Even worse, it often wants us to be shamed by it because it is rife with acts that today may be considered politically incorrect. We are suffering a peculiar cultural psychosis in which our students are taught to be embarrassed by their own history.
Like it or not history is us. It not only holds vital lessons for us, it provides the texture and context for who we are. The late Michael Crichton summed it up perfectly when he observed that “if you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
4. What is the long-term consequence of being blind to that tree?
Over time it is disastrous for our culture. George Orwell once said that the most effective way to destroy a people is to obliterate their understanding of their history—an abject example of deliberate efforts to do so is found in China’s current treatment of Tibetans. But in our own country we are doing this to ourselves. How can we expect the next generation to responsibly participate in our democracy if they don’t know what that democracy is? We need to make our past live. We need to get back to stories of the human experience.
5. So you believe we should rewrite our history texts?
The miserable scores on student history tests certainly tells us something is wrong. We need to be excited about our history. Our text authors and professors have been teaching our students the opposite, numbing them to the past. I have studied history texts of two generations ago, and current texts are thin, sterile reflections of those prior works.
History is a culmination of human stories, and eliminating those stories eliminates all the meat. We are not about dates of wars and names of kings. We are creatures made up of stories. Stories are in our DNA. We are the echoes from medieval chapels, the salt spray from the bow of a Viking longship, and the lingering brushstroke of the Sung dynasty poet. These are the threads that make up the fabric of who we are. These are the threads illuminated by the best historical novels. We embrace historical novels because our histories just aren’t good enough.